Sam Riddle Tells Inside Story of Purchasing Man o’War

Mary Simon, three-time Eclipse Award winner and one of the sport’s most noted historians, brought out an old box of papers she hadn’t looked at in many years and placed it on the living room floor. She had no idea what was in there, just basically old papers she had saved.

Among the contents, secured by a small rusted paper clip, were a number of typewritten yellowed pages, frayed at the edges. The letters were small and typed neatly in double space with a green ribbon.

Attached was a cover letter, on the personal stationery of Samuel D. Riddle, Glen Riddle, Pennsylvania, dated March 24, 1938, and addressed to Neil Newman of Brooklyn, N.Y., who was a long-time turf writer in the 1930s and ‘40s for the Thoroughbred Record and New York Telegraph, and was an assistant for a time to racing secretary John B. Campbell. Newman wrote under the pen name “Roamer,” which was a common practice of turf writers back then. He died in 1951.

The cover letter read: “Dear Mr. Newman, Here is the transcript of Mr. Riddle’s conversation and discussion in the office the other afternoon, which I trust you will find in good order…Very truly yours, A.H. Marlowe.” It is assumed Marlowe was Riddle’s secretary or assistant.

The actual transcript was titled “From Man o’ War to War Admiral … as narrated by Samuel D. Riddle to Neil Newman.” A number of pages are missing, but there is more than enough to bring Man o’ War and his owner Sam Riddle back to life, followed by Riddle’s comments about his “current” star War Admiral.

Mary could not remember for sure who gave her these papers, but said it likely came from either Oscar Otis of the Daily Racing Form or Jack Shettlesworth, editor of the Thoroughbred of California in the 1950s.

Reading the transcript was an amazing journey back in time that seemed as if it were written today and that Man o’ War was still alive at stud and War Admiral was about to embark on his Triple Crown odyssey. It provided an up close and personal look at Man o’ War through Riddle’s eyes from the time he purchased him throughout his racing career, with the exception of his 2-year-old campaign, which was missing.

This was too remarkable a journal to just let lay in an old box. It was a portal back in time with Riddle providing the narrative about his life, as well as his life with Man o’ War, dissecting his races, and the profound impact the first “Big Red” had on him.

I was thrilled that Mary allowed me to take these papers and let Man o’ War come to life through the words of his owner. She suggested I wait until 2019 to coincide with the anniversary of Man o’ War’s 2-year-old campaign. But this transcript is so extensive and so up close and personal, focusing mostly on his purchase as a yearling, I felt it was appropriate to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the sale by providing a behind-the scenes look at how Man o’ War came into Riddle’s life.

Rather than let the original pages wilt away, perhaps the National Museum of Racing or the Keeneland Library would be interested in this rare piece of history.

Riddle began: “The statement has been frequently made and even has appeared in print, that Man o’ War put me on the racing map and if it had not been for ‘Big Red,’ Sam Riddle would never have been heard of. I’ll go farther and confess I suspect my being a member of The Jockey Club is due primarily to my ownership of Man o’ War. That august body could hardly be expected to elect a horse a member, so they met the situation in a spirit I have always applauded and made me a member instead.

“It is equally true that Man o’ War and Sam Riddle have, so to speak, been coupled in the betting so long and so frequently that hotel clerks, when I sign the register, unconsciously look to see if Man o’ War is accompanying me. However, so far I have not developed an inferiority complex on this account, and comfort myself with the thought, ‘Who would have ever heard of Sir Isaac Newton if he had not been hit on the head with an apple.”

Riddle then went on to talk about his life in much the same sharp-humored, humble manner, which made him seem real, and not merely an elderly gentleman with mustache, wire-rim spectacles, and straw hat that we see in photographs.

He told how his mother’s family came to America with William Penn, and because of the shortage of women, the colonists remedied that by marrying Indian women.

“So it seems I am a mixture of Scotch, Irish, English, and Indian and therefore no more eligible to the registry among the social elect than the unfortunate Man o’ War is to the General Stud Book.,” he said.

After discussing his background with horses and finally registering his black and gold colors of Glen Riddle Farm with The Jockey Club in 1915, he turned to World War I and August Belmont, who was a major in the army.

“He was imbued with the idea that the war was going to last interminably,” Riddle said. “He was ‘so close to the forest he was unable to distinguish the trees.’ But in fairness it must be remembered at this time the situation for the United States and the Allied powers was never darker. The Germans were passing through Picardy at a speed of twenty miles a day, thousands were fleeing Paris daily, the American army was as yet an unknown factor, and the battle of Belleau Wood was still beyond the military horizon. So it was not strange that Major Belmont was determined to sell his yearlings of 1918 instead of breaking them and turning them over to Sam Hildreth to train.

“After reaching this decision, Belmont cabled to Adolphe Pons, manager of his racing interests at his New York office at 55 Pine Street, instructing Pons to sell the entire lot of yearlings privately. Pons, in turn, contacted me, giving me a list of yearlings with their breeding and I took the matter under consideration.

“I sent ‘Mikey’ Daly and Louis Feustel, then my trainer, to the Nursery Stud near Lexington, Kentucky, where manager Kane had the yearlings brought out for inspection. Daly and Feustel looked them over carefully. They were not impressed very favorably, and came back and reported to me they were undersized and hardly worth acquiring. I thereupon dismissed the matter from my mind.

“Mrs. Riddle and I went to Saratoga near the end of July. We had purchased the house we still occupy on Union Avenue a year or two before and also built a first-class training track and established training quarters on the Eastern Shore near Berlin, Maryland. We had the setting, all we needed were the jewels.

“The Glen Riddle horses with Feustel in charge were shipped to Saratoga and Mikey Daly was also there with the (Walter) Jeffords’ horses. Failing to sell his yearlings privately, Major Belmont was determined to sell them by public auction and shipped them from Kentucky in charge of Willie Brennan, then right-hand man to Sam Hildreth and now trainer for Greentree Stable of Mrs. Helen Hay Whitney.

“Daly and Feustel insisted I go out to the yearling paddocks to inspect the Belmont yearlings, as they wanted me to see them for myself and confirm their opinions. In the main I concurred in their judgment, until I came to the last stall where I saw a yearling with his head stuck out of the door looking things over. When he was led out I saw a thin, long-legged colt, a red chestnut in color, with a sunburned coat. It was obvious no effort had been made to ‘put an overcoat on him.’ He was just in the rough, apparently he had been taken up there right off the grass, loaded in the cars and shipped to Saratoga along with the rest of the yearlings. Looking him over, I noticed his fine shoulder, the deep-set withers, clean head and neck, the broad-spaced intelligent eyes, saw the fluted tendons, and picking up his feet, observed ‘the badge of all his tribe,’ the best of legs and feet.”

Here is where we have a scene right out of the classic movie “Kentucky,” regarding the farm’s star horse, Postman.

“Riddle continued, “Turning to Daly and Feustel, I asked, ‘What was wrong with this fellow?’ They responded, ‘We did not see him.’ To which I queried, ‘Why not?’ and Daly said, ‘Look at him and you’ll know – they never attempted to get this colt ready for the sale. Apparently it was their intention to hold him out and train him, so when we came there they hid him away.’

“The next day I took Mrs. Riddle to look the yearlings over and told her, ‘Lizzie, see that colt in the end box? Don’t go near him, I’m going to buy him and I don’t want anyone to run him up.’ Mrs. Riddle asked, “How much are you going to pay for him, $25,000?’ (obviously being facetious, as that was an astronomical amount for a yearling in those days). I merely answered, ‘I’m going to buy him.’

“The next day I took my old friend Jim Maddux to inspect the yearlings. Maddux was a great gentleman and a first-class judge of a horse. He too fell in love with the leggy colt.

“The sale took place on a Saturday afternoon, August 17, 1918 and began at 1 p.m. George Bain was in the box, the sale was held in the paddock at Saratoga Racetrack, back of the grandstand. There were twenty three yearlings catalogued in the Belmont lot, two were withdrawn from the sale and the colt Man o’ War was the seventh yearling led in. All of the yearlings had been named; it was August Belmont who conferred the name Man o’ War was the chestnut colt by Fair Play, out of Mahubah.

“There was considerable competition for Man o’ War, but he was finally knocked down to me for $5,000. The twenty one head sold for a total of $50,650. They were a superbly bred lot of young horses. I bought one other yearling in the Belmont lot, an imported colt called Gun Muzzle. He cost $1,200 and wasn’t worth a dime. As a matter of fact, during the month, I bought eleven yearlings for a total of $28,550, and for one of them, a colt later known as Salt Peter, I paid more than I paid for Man o’ War, $6,000. But bar Man o’ War, they were all blanks.

Riddle went on to say that despite the war raging in Europe and the uncertainty of the future, the yearlings sold well, with Walter Jeffords purchasing the highest-price horse at $15,000. He added that ten horses sold for more money than Man o’ War. At the time, he felt the price he paid for Man o’ War was a fair one, as Fair Play had sired only one first-class racehorse, Stromboli, and his dam had produced just one winner at the time, a filly named Masda, who was fast, but flighty.

When the hammer fell at $5,000 for Man o’ War, Riddle turned to his wife and others in his party and said, “This is the cheapest horse I ever bought,” meaning the colt was the biggest bargain he ever purchased.

Riddle recalled that two buyers, Phil Clark and Bill Hogan, had looked Man o’ War over very carefully with the idea of making a jumper out of him, but they stopped bidding at $2,500.

“We took Man o’ War over to the stable and examined him very carefully. Here is what we saw--a red chestnut, marked with a star, and an indistinct short gray stripe on his forehead. A good clean head, large nostrils, stout neck, a bit broad across the chest, with more scope or length than the average horse, and cut away slightly behind the croup. He had the best of legs and feet, which were of average size, and his pasterns were not too long, nor straight. He was light and looked a bit leggy. In size and power he resembled a sprinter, in conformation he looked like a stayer. And history was to prove he was that rare avis (rare bird), both.

“It was a rather strenuous job breaking him, he fought like a lion. It took three or four days before we could master him, but once he was broken he became extremely tractable. We quickly noted another very good point; he was in racetrack parlance a great ‘doer’ (eater) and consumed twelve quarts of oats a day and all the hay he could eat. He had a tendency to bolt his food, which we overcame by bitting him while he was feeding.

“In his yearling trials he displayed dazzling speed and when he went into winter quarters at Berlin we were sanguine we had a colt above the ordinary and one that would make good the prediction I made when he was knocked down to me, which was, ‘This is the cheapest horse I ever bought.’

“Man o’ War was dubbed ‘Big Red’ by the stable help and to this day responds to that name. In the spring of his 2-year-old year he took sick, his temperature rose to 106, but he fought the fever off and made his first start and won a purse at Belmont on June 6, 1919.”

The legend was born.

As mentioned, the pages containing his 2-year-old campaign were missing, but in the next installment, Riddle takes you behind the scenes of Man o’ War’s 3-year-old campaign, and discusses his early stud career, and his greatest son, War Admiral.

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